KEY WEST — Before he became the Dirty Joke Guy on Duval Street, Dennis Walsh was a world traveler, a college student, a sailor and a commercial fisherman.
He was supposed to be a lawyer, but now tells jokes about them for a buck or two.
Walsh is one of Key West's street performers who makes his living on the city's main commercial thoroughfare. He typically sits on Duval Street with his dog and a sign that reads, "Dirty Jokes $1."
Then he waits for the inevitably curious passers-by.
"People come up to me. I don't shout at them. I don't flag them down," he said. "I ask my customers whether any topics are off-limits, and I always ask a guy's permission before telling a dirty joke to his lady."
Walsh has more than 400 jokes in his mental arsenal, ranging from mildly suggestive to wildly raunchy.
"But I've gotten really good at reading people, and knowing how far to take it," said Walsh, who has been telling — and selling — jokes on Duval Street for about four years.
He holds a city permit as a street performer, and recently has spearheaded efforts to organize his colleagues in response to a proposal by city officials to increase the restrictions governing the artists and performers. He wants those officials to know that the mimes, artists, jugglers and drummers on Duval Street are members of the community, who add to the island's colorful reputation.
He's also the first to admit he's no saint. Breaking and entering to retrieve money owed to you is not the best way to collect on a debt, he admits, recalling his five-year stint as a Virginia inmate.
"Any bad choices I've made are my own responsibility," Walsh said. "But now I'm playing by the rules."
Walsh was "supposed" to be a lawyer, according to his family's wishes. He scored a 1,470 on his SAT in high school, and spent two years at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., he said.
He was spending a weekend whale watching in Provincetown, Mass., with his fiancee when he saw the historic schooner Hindu and learned the captain needed a crew. "I left school two weeks before finals that year and never went back," he said. Walsh crewed on the schooner for five years.
He arrived in the Florida Keys in 2004, and got a job as a boat builder's apprentice in Key Largo. After an eight-month stint in the Monroe County Detention Center for trespassing and petty theft, Walsh stayed in Key West. He moved onto a sailboat and rescued a black Labrador he named Huckleberry Dude. And he has been making people laugh ever since. "I'd rather have a million people give me one dollar than one person give me $10,000," Walsh said, estimating he tells about 200 jokes per day. He makes about $150 a night, and is paying off some debts.